Jeremy Bentham – The First Animal Rights Activist..?

Jeremy Bentham 1748-1832

Over the last few weeks I have been reading up the history of animal rights. Upon my discovery I have realised that the history itself is relevantly short. It’s true, we have been living among animals for over 15,000 years starting with the domestication of dogs – shortly after this we started actively domesticating animals for farming and agriculture. As we harnessed this we have gained the trust of these animals and as with many things in life – there will be people who wish to abuse and take advantage of this. So the  fundamental question is: When did we recognise that there is a welfare issue? When did we sympathise with animals and strive to improve their welfare and punish those who abuse them? I believe it entered into public awareness  thanks to a man called Jeremy Bentham.

Jeremy Bentham was born on 15th February 1748 and died on 6th June 1832 (if he were still alive he would be 267 years old…!) He is more famous for being the founder of modern utilitarianism among many other things. He was surprised at the lack of sympathy we had towards animals at that time, there was widespread abuse and no common law to protect their welfare. No doubt there were people far before him who had sympathies towards animals, however it was Mr. Bentham who published these views for the public and I would like to think contributed towards the views we (or most of us at least) hold today.

He once wrote in 1789;

“The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer? Why should the law refuse its protection to any sensitive being?”

This is probably the most famous quote of his with regards to animal rights and probably my most favourite.

Later on March 1825 he also wrote;

I never have seen, nor ever can see, any objection to the putting of dogs and other inferior animals to pain, in the way of medical experiment, when that experiment has a determinate object, beneficial to mankind, accompanied with a fair prospect of the accomplishment of it. But I have a decided and insuperable objection to the putting of them to pain without any such view. To my apprehension, every act by which, without prospect of preponderant good, pain is knowingly and willingly produced in any being whatsoever, is an act of cruelty; and, like other bad habits, the more the correspondent habit is indulged in, the stronger it grows, and the more frequently productive of its bad fruit. I am unable to comprehend how it should be, that to him to whom it is a matter of amusement to see a dog or a horse suffer, it should not be matter of like amusement to see a man suffer; seeing, as I do, how much more morality as well as intelligence, an adult quadruped of those and many other species has in him, than any biped has for some months after he has been brought into existence; nor does it appear to me how it should be, that a person to whom the production of pain, either in the one or in the other instance, is a source of amusement, would scruple to give himself that amusement when he could do so under an assurance of impunity.

Fortunately the United Kingdom was the first country in the world to implement legislation to protect the welfare of animals. In 1822 an Act to Prevent the Cruel and Improper Treatment of Cattle was passed by Parliament. It is sad for me to say that there are many places in the world today which have very little to no knowledge or concern for animal welfare and in comparison the United Kingdom is quite advanced compared to the majority. I suppose with our modern business lifestyles it is easy to overlook this among the other problems that are occurring in this world. However it is worth taking a step back and reflecting this as our population grows and demand for food the responsibilities we have for animals also grow. As someone who looks up to Jeremy Bentham for these reasons I am only echoing his original message upon this blog post. If we want to use animals for our benefit, whether it is for food, transport, companionship or many others  functions we have to fulfil our moral obligations.

After all, does this compassion not make us human?


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